The Collection of James and Marilynn Alsdorf represents a notable achievement in the history of American connoisseurship. Steadily acquired throughout the latter half of the twentieth century by two of Chicago’s most important civic and cultural patrons, the Collection is unparalleled in its breadth and quality, illuminating the remarkable feats of human artistry across time and geography. For the Alsdorfs, collecting represented a unique opportunity for exploration, adventure, and the pursuit of beauty, extending from the art-filled rooms of their Chicago residence to distant continents and historic lands. The couple’s philosophy of collecting, as Marilynn Alsdorf explained, was simple yet profound: “We looked for objects,” she said, “to delight our eyes and souls….”
From the 1950s, the Alsdorfs were especially ardent patrons of the Art Institute of Chicago, gifting or lending hundreds of works to the museum commencing in the earliest days of their collecting. A longtime AIC trustee, Mrs. Alsdorf served for a time as president of the museum’s Women’s Board, while Mr. Alsdorf served as AIC chairman from 1975 to 1978. The couple’s decades of generosity toward the AIC would extend past Mr. Alsdorf’s death and into the twenty-first century. In 1997, Mrs. Alsdorf presented the AIC with some four hundred works of Southeast Asian art, a transformative bequest celebrated by the landmark exhibition A Collecting Odyssey: Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian Art from the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection. Less than a decade later, Mrs. Alsdorf made yet another monumental gift when she supported the construction of the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art.
After six years in the French countryside, Jean Dubuffet returned to a resplendent Paris in 1961 where he found inspiration for the vivacious Palinodie. This painting belongs to a unique subseries of his famed Paris Circus series, completed during what has become known as Dubuffet’s annus mirabilis. Known as a subseries, Légendes transcends the archetypal city streets, instead focusing on the people who reside and occupy the urban landscape. A parade of three electric-colored figures progress across the canvas—their distinct facial features merge into a flurry of luminous, neon fragments while their small feet carry them onwards. Their surfaces, too, became ever-more frenzied, gradually eroding the relationship between figure and ground.
Painted in September 1961, during a stay in Vence in the south of France, the images of a new, confidant postwar Paris were at the forefront of his mind. Gone were the somber memories and traces of World War II he had known during his early days as an artist. The Paris of the early 1960s possessed a powerful and joyful energy that filled the streets, mirroring the spirit of London’s ‘swinging sixties’ and America’s commercial boom. France, like much of the Western world, entered an era of social and cultural change, marked by the rise of New Wave cinema, sexual revolution and the fashion and advertising industries. For Dubuffet, however, it was this shift that encouraged him to re-imagine his artistic practice.
Palinodie, and the paintings of Dubuffet’s Légendes series recall his earlier exploration in portraiture, executed in the aftermath of World War II. From August 1946 to August 1947, Dubuffet created over 10 paintings and drawings of his friends from the Parisian Intelligentsia—artists, political activists, philosophers and poets such as Joë Bousquet and Henri Michaux. In these earlier paintings, “Dubuffet blocks likeness by purposefully emphasizing the materiality and opacity of his painted surfaces” says Kent Minturn. “Dubuffet chose to focus on these individuals multiple times because their writings accomplish in literature precisely what he hoped to accomplish visually in the genre of portraiture… These author’s writings emphasize semantic obscurity” (K.M. Minturn, “Physiognomy Illegibility,” in Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, 2016, p. 44 and 54).
The French word palinodie is a literary device used to make a poetic retraction. Under these circumstances, then, one wonders what Dubuffet might recant? Looking back to the caricatures of 1940’s, with their distinct black lines and clear physiological qualities, Dubuffet’s portraits of Légendes are no longer portraits. Instead, Palinodie’s phosphorescent, dappled, and variegated color replaces the simple caricatures, effectively rendering these visages anonymous, obfuscating the need for specific and real personalities. Formlessness and color become more important than pseudo-mimetic renderings to communicate Dubuffet’s proclivity for the unreal. “Over and done with the mystical jubilations of the physical world: I have become nauseated by it and no longer wish to work except against it. It is the unreal now that enchants me; I have an appetite for nontruth, the false life, the antiworld; my efforts are launched on the path of irrealism” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Frankie, Dubuffet, 1981, p. 147). It is no wonder then, that present painting takes this name—Palinodie marks a retraction, a device borrowed from his literary friends, of his previous focus on realism and of depicting realism.
1961 was truly an auspicious year for the French artist. Works from this annus mirabilis now belong to internationally renowned institutions—from the Légendes subseries such as La Gigue Irlandaise (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), La Légende des Steppes (Ludwig Museum, Cologne), and Actes Légendaires (Kemper Art Museum, Washington, D.C); From the wider Paris Circus series—Vire-volte (Tate Gallery, London), Le commerce prospe’re (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Rue passage’re (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), and La main dans le sac (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven). Remarkably, the creation of Palinodie is bookended the Paris Circus city scenes in 1961, as well as his most famous L’Hourloupe in 1962. Within Palinodie, one recognizes the distinct formal characteristics of both these bodies of work. The present painting’s use of the vivid, psychedelic colors and figurative personages echo its predecessor, while the distinct use of thick, linear markings of each compositional fragment and distinct flatness foreshadow the following series’ abstraction. “In the paintings I now plan to do there will only be aggressively unreasonable forms, colors gaudy without reason, a theater of irrealities, an outrageous attempt against everything existing, the way wide open for the most outlandish inventions” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Frankie, Dubuffet, 1981, p. 147).
Dubuffet’s return to Paris proved a remarkable source of inspiration for the artist. He saw a city that was no longer melancholy and war-torn, instead encountering a Paris that had become the site of incredible visual spectacle. Newly inspired, the artist created several paintings, gouaches, and drawings celebrating the ethos of the city and its inhabitants. Palinodie makes a particularly poignant reference in its recollection of Dubuffet’s 1946 and 1947 portraits featuring his close literary friends. It marks an auspicious moment in Dubuffet’s artistic career where he shifted towards depicting the “irreal,” rather than the real—a palinode to his former works, and a pictorial poem to Paris and its intelligentsia. As Schjeldahl said, “Dubuffet had long preferred the company of writers to other painters” (P. Schjeldahl, ibid., p. 23). Jean-Paul Sartre perhaps best summarized the influence that literature had on Dubuffet: “Words for him compose a face of flesh, which represents rather than expresses meaning. And when the poet joins several of these microcosms together the case is like that of painters when they assemble their colors on the canvas. One might think that he is composing a sentence, but that is only what it appears to be. He is creating an object. The words-things are grouped by magical associations of fitness and incongruity, like colors and sounds. They attract, repel, and ‘burn’ one another, and their association composes their veritable poetic unity that is phase-object” (J.P. Sartre (1947), What is Literature, 1988, p. 29).